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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hindu Festival Draws Millions to Ganges

ALLAHABAD, India -- Hundreds of Hindu holy men, naked but for the ash smeared on their bodies and an occasional marigold garland, led a sea of humanity Monday to the waters of the Ganges River to wash away their sins at the peak of a weeks-long pilgrimage.

By midmorning Monday, some 3 million people had immersed themselves in the waters near the north Indian city of Allahabad, festival organizer P. N. Mishra said.

The number was expected to top 5 million by the end of the day -- declared a "royal bathing day" by astrologers and the most auspicious of the 45-day festival that started Jan. 3.

The holy men, or sadhus, were followed into the waters by the heads of Hindu monasteries, many of them pulled in on elaborate silver sedan chairs, or palanquins. Marching bands accompanied them as they initiated the bathing by scattering flowers over the waiting faithful and chanting "Har Har Gange," or "Long Live the Ganges."

Nearly 70 million Hindus are expected to participate in the "Ardh Kumbh Mela" or Half Grand Pitcher Festival, one of the largest regular gatherings in the world. They wash themselves in the waters of the Ganges, believing it absolves their sins and ends the process of reincarnation.

While pilgrims dip themselves in the chilly waters at the spot where the Ganges meets the Yamuna River throughout the festival, Monday was declared by astrologers as especially auspicious after the sun entered the Tropic of Capricorn late Sunday night.

The millions of pilgrims, who have come from all over India, spent the night in the thousands of tents erected on the banks of the river. Those who had no access to tents huddled under trees waiting their turn to descend into the heavily polluted waters.

On the banks, people braved the early morning winter chill, men stripping down to their underwear, women in saris and children naked washing themselves in the waters.

The spirituality of the event helped overcome the cold, pilgrim Narendra Nath Upadhaya said. "A dip and the cold melts away," he said even as he shivered violently.

For many it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. "I am here to wash away my sins -- the sins I accumulated in my life so that I can die as a pious soul," said Hari Om Sharma, 68, from the neighboring state of Bihar.

Hindu mythology posits that gods and demons fought a celestial war, spilling nectar at Allahabad in a pitcher, or Kumbh. A larger festival, the "Maha Kumbh Mela," or the Grand Pitcher Festival, takes place every 12 years.